Helicopter Operations: A Team Sport
The players must pool their individual efforts to achieve a common goal. One player can’t do it alone. They must all work together to make the magic that happens when the team is greater than its individual members.
And so it is with helicopter operations — of any kind. Except we don’t work together to score points, we work together to complete a mission efficiently, effectively, and safely.
Complex helicopter air ambulance transfers can’t be completed safely without the seamless integration of the entire team. Each member of a helicopter logging crew must work together to reduce risk and complete the job. And members of a helicopter search-and-rescue team all contribute specific skills at specific times to accomplish the mission.
Every player on the field needs help from his or her teammates. Helicopter professionals, like the best sports teams, need great communication, situational awareness, and leadership to do their best work together and get the job done safely.
You are likely saying to yourself, Of course we work together as a crew to get the job done. But is each player merely doing his or her individual part, or are they also enabling others to do their best work? In volleyball, the best kill shot is enabled by the best set, which is in turn is enabled by the best dig. Everyone has their own job, but they also enable the other people on the team to do their best.
The pilot can’t start the IV, just as the flight nurse can’t lift the aircraft from the landing zone. But these tasks are interrelated, and each person’s performance will affect the others.
Can the pilot enable a less-risky needlestick by changing altitude or airspeed? Can the flight nurse, doctor, or technician provide invaluable input on obstacle clearance when lifting from the scene? Absolutely. Could either of these tasks be completed without the help of the other team members? Probably. But complex tasks are most safely completed when the crew works together synergistically to minimize risk at every turn.
Communication is the bus that the crew coordination team rides in. Without it, the team is going nowhere.
Sports teams communicate by a variety of means. The baseball manager’s signs and the quarterback’s audible play calls on the field are vivid examples. In our industry, we communicate with team members by talking on the intercom or radio and using hand signals.
Direct verbal communication conveys a great deal of information, but voice tone and body language convey volumes of information as well. How well we read and react to those subtler (and perhaps more accurate) forms of communication can significantly enhance how well we work together as a crew.
Just as the basketball player with the ball must make a split-second decision about who to pass to based on the other players’ cues, we must use cues in voice and body language to support other members of the crew. Flight test crews (and their ground-based telemetry techs) must make instant decisions to continue or abort test points based on a host of complex parameters. They must also consider the comfort level of the crew in the aircraft based on subtle communications. Given the pressures of the job, this is no easy task, but it is critical to the safety of all involved.
Really good teams communicate through all channels — verbal and nonverbal — without hesitation. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to offer help when you sense it is needed.
Situational awareness (SA) is the degree of accuracy by which perception mirrors reality. Football teams often try to fool their opponents by coming to the line of scrimmage with a formation designed to convey a false play. Flight crews are also often fooled by a false reality, such as wires that can’t be seen, higher temperature than anticipated, or an operating environment that is different than briefed.
Just as the opposing football team must react to the reality of the play as it unfolds, we must be aware of our situations as they unfold. The quarterback must make adjustments based on his read of the defense, and helicopter crews must make on-scene adjustments as necessary.
The key in both cases is to get the whole team to make those adjustments together. Here again, communication enables the situational awareness of the crew.
Every member of the crew holds a piece of the SA puzzle, even ground-based team members (such as a trooper in a car or ground-based dispatcher). Sharing that information helps build SA for all members and is vital. For example, relying on one person’s memory about obstacles that surround the aircraft prior to landing or takeoff is risky. Real-time SA is better when gathered by many sources and shared. The more accurate everyone’s picture of reality is, the better he or she can react to unfolding events.
Leadership in helicopter aviation requires the ability to direct and coordinate the actions of the crew. Everyone in the crew is a leader at one point or another during any helicopter mission. The pilot may be the lead for the takeoff and transit flight, but a crew member may be the situational leader on the approach, based on better visibility of an obstacle.
The team member with the most expertise or awareness of the situation takes the lead and directs the actions of the entire crew, even if only for a little while. This situational leadership doesn’t depend on the seniority of the team member. The specific task leader may be the most junior person on the crew. So it pays to ensure that all members of the crew are able and qualified to take the lead at some point.
A team of mountain climbers would never take to the mountain without every team member knowing how to use a rope and ice axe. Everyone is hooked together and, at some point in a climb, every member of the team must be capable of exercising leadership and arresting a fall, saving everyone. Likewise, we should never get airborne without every team member understanding how to use their skills to lead the crew.
Everyone must know their specific role, as well as how to perform that role as part of a crew. This doesn’t mean that responsibility for the safety of the flight or the positional leadership changes. This temporary shift in situational leadership must be shared among members of the crew, but the designated leadership for the flight never changes. The pilot-in-command is generally that leader. But the best leaders share situational leadership and enable their team to do their best work.
Safety for the Win
For any helicopter operation, acting as a team and making good plays on the field can be a matter of life and death. But it doesn’t just happen.
To become a high-performing team takes practice and insight into how your teammates work and react. We, like the best sports teams, must practice good communications, share information to maintain SA, and take the lead when required to support the rest of the crew and win the safety trophy — every time we fly. GO TEAM.
Dave Blair is the chief pilot for safety at Sikorsky Aircraft, responsible for enterprise-wide flight operations safety. Dave is a rotary-wing ATP and also holds fixed-wing commercial and instrument privileges. In addition to a master’s degree from The George Washington University, Dave attended the Naval Aviation Safety Officer’s course at the Naval Postgraduate School. He serves as an industry advisor to the HAI Safety Committee and is a member of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team.